A month of remote work - lessons learned
Apr 23 by Maciej Kaszubowski

At the time of writing this, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing many of us to work from home. After a month of working fully remotely for the first time, I wanted to write down some observations and lessons learned during this time.

Don’t simulate the office environment

AppUnite has always been a remote-friendly place, but the entire team working fully remotely is a new thing for us.

Without much experience with remote work, the first instinct was to try to simulate the office environment. Some people created a Discord channel so that the entire team could be in touch all the time.

I wanted to try something different. I felt that if we tried to work as if we were still in the same room, we’d learn nothing new after things back to normal. Instead, my assumption was to treat the situation as an experiment, approach it with an open mind and try to learn as much as possible.

Asynchronous > synchronous

When it comes to synchronous communication, nothing beats talking face to face, preferably in front of the whiteboard. Neither chat, nor audio/video calls can fully replace that. What we can try is to go on the other end of the spectrum and stop expecting people to respond right away.

When you know that the recipient can read your message even after a few hours, you have to be more deliberate in your communication. You need to be precise so that the recipient can understand you without asking additional questions. You have to provide as much context as necessary.

Don’t assume people know what’s going on. Your message should clearly describe the problem, give necessary references (direct links are great), specify what action is needed and who needs to take that action. Be as explicit as possible.

The biggest fear of asynchronous communication is that not responding immediately will slow people down. I have to say that when you’re used to synchronous communication, this can be true for a while. Asynchronous communication is a skill and it requires practice to master. But the benefits come quickly.

If we really take time to make the communication clear and explicit, it takes less time overall. You are forced to express your thoughts and needs clearly, to plan your work more thoughtfully, do more research yourself. It improves your communication, thinking process, and organisation skills.

Of course, there’s still the need for synchronous communication. But I’m learning to avoid anything between. If you need to go synchronous, gather everyone involved, have a quick and intense video call. If you don’t, prefer asynchronous, long-text forms over exchanging short messages.

Write a plan

After each day, I write down the things I want to accomplish the next day.

First of all, it’s a great sign that the work is done for the day. It gives me mental clarity because I know that nothing is left unattended. If I wasn’t able to finish something that day, I plan it for the next day, I’m no longer worried about it and I get that needed rest.

The second benefit is that it keeps you focused, which can be a challenge outside of the office. It also gives you a sense of accomplishment if you do the things you have written down.

Having a plan also allows you to think about who you need to collaborate with. This is crucial with asynchronous communication. When you know what you have to do, you can plan your work and communication for the day so you don’t have to spend time waiting for crucial piece of information from someone.

Separate work and free time

I think it’s important to be able to clearly separate work time and free time.

If you have a separate room for work - great. But the separation can be as easy as putting your computer in a closet, changing clothes, making dinner, exercising, or telling your partner that you finished. The important thing is to have a ritual which tells your mind that the work time is over (writing down a plan for the next day can be a part of that ritual!)

Use the breaks well

A surprising thing I noticed - I’m more effective when working from home. I thing one of the reasons is that my breaks are more effective, too.

At the office, breaks can feel unproductive. They are also too related to work. After all, we’re still in the same environment and talking to the same people.

At home, I can do something completely different during breaks. I can exercise a bit, prepare dinner, talk to my partner. I can do things that really take my mind off work. This makes me feel more rested and as a result, the work after the break is better.

I used to believe that offices are great because they help you to stay focused and productive. Now, I’m starting to believe that what offices are actually good at is keeping you busy, but not necessarily productive (they are great for socialising, though) At the office, there’s often nothing really interesting to do apart from working. So even if you’re not productive, you keep working just to be busy. At home, you risk getting distracted (that’s why a written down plan is helpful!), but the actual work time can be much more effective. As a result, you can spend less actual time in front of your computer and still get more done.

Be cool, everybody’s struggling

The last thing worth mentioning. Be easy on yourself. For most of us, working fully remotely is a new situation. It’s normal that it’s hard so accept the difficulties. If you want to use that time to learn and grow, that’s great. But it’s perfectly fine to just want to survive this.

The good part is that we’re all in this together. If you struggle, show that to other people - let them know that they’re not alone. And if you’re doing well, try to find a way to help and support others.

Summary

I have to say that I really enjoy remote work. I feel more rested, more effective. I feel that I learned a lot of things that I can use in the future, even when (or if) we go back to working from the office.

But you may have completely different opinions on remote work. So if there’s one thing I’d like you to get from this (and the most important lesson I learned) is to treat all changes and problems as an opportunity to learn something new. Approach things with an open mind and learn to embrace the struggle and you’ll be much better off.

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